Tag Archive: White Mist Revolution


October 16, 2019

CEYLANPINAR, Turkey (AP) — Russia moved to fill the void left by the United States in northern Syria on Tuesday, deploying troops to keep apart advancing Syrian government forces and Turkish troops. At the same time, tensions grew within NATO as Turkey defied growing condemnation of its invasion from its Western allies.

Now in its seventh day, Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish fighters has caused tens of thousands to flee their homes, has upended alliances and is re-drawing the map of northern Syria for yet another time in the 8-year-old war.

Russia moved quickly to further entrench its role as a power broker after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the pullout of American forces in northeastern Syria. The American move effectively abandoned the Kurdish fighters who were allied with the U.S. and cleared the way for Turkey’s invasion aimed at crushing them.

Desperate for a new protector, the Kurdish administration struck a deal with the Russia-backed government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces on Sunday began moving into Kurdish-administered areas to shield them against Turkey.

Syrian troops waved flags after they rolled into Manbij, a flashpoint town west of the Euphrates River that Turkey had been aiming to capture and wrest from Kurdish control. Video by Russian journalists with the troops showed what appeared to be an abandoned outpost where U.S. forces had been stationed.

A U.S. military spokesman, Col. Myles B. Caggins, confirmed U.S. troops had completed their pullout from Manbij. During the withdrawal, contacts were kept open with the Turks and Russians to ensure the several hundred American forces there got out safely, U.S. officials said.

U.S. troops have had outposts in Manbij since 2017, when they went in to avert a battle over the town between Turkish and Kurdish fighters. Now Russia was playing that role. Outside Manbij, Russian troops patrolled front lines between Turkish and Syrian army positions to keep them apart, Russia’s Defense Ministry said.

“No one is interested” in fighting between Syrian government troops and Turkish forces, said Alexander Lavrentyev, Moscow’s envoy for Syria. Russia “is not going to allow it,” he told Russian state news agencies.

Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters Washington is “deeply concerned” that Russian troops are patrolling between the two sides. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper to discuss “issues of mutual interest in the context of situation in Syria,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a brief statement, without elaborating.

Russia has been a staunch ally of Assad for decades and entered the Syrian conflict in 2015, providing air power that eventually turned the tide of the war in his favor. The Russian military has shipped weapons to Damascus, trained thousands of troops and put its advisers in key Syrian military units.

In the first week of the Turkish assault, at least 154 fighters from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been killed, as well as 128 fighters from Turkish-backed Syrian factions , according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor of the war. It said at least 69 civilians have been killed in Syria. Turkey says six of its soldiers have died, as well as at least 20 Turkish civilians killed by Kurdish mortar fire across the border.

Despite the Syrian and Russian deployments, Turkey insisted it would capture Manbij. Asked on Sky News if Turkey’s military was willing to fight Assad’s army, Vice President Fuat Oktay said, “We hope it’s not going to happen, but again we are determined to get control over Manbij.”

Mortar fire from Manbij killed two Turkish soldiers and wounded seven others, the Turkish Defense Ministry said. An Associated Press team later saw up to 200 Turkish troops along with armored vehicles crossing near Manbij and Kobani, a border town that is not yet secured by Syrian forces. Farther east on the border, Turkish and Kurdish forces were in heavy battles over the town of Ras al-Ayn, captured by Turkish troops days earlier.

A U.S. official said the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops being withdrawn from northern Syria will reposition in Iraq, Kuwait and possibly Jordan. The U.S. forces in Iraq could conduct cross-border operations against the Islamic State group in Syria as they did before creating the now-abandoned partnership with Syrian Kurdish-led forces, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive planning for a U.S. pullout.

After opening the way for the Turkish assault with its pullout, Washington is now trying to restrain its fellow NATO member. Trump on Monday announced sanctions aimed at Turkey’s economy. The U.S. called on Turkey to stop the offensive and declare a cease-fire, while European Union countries moved to broaden an arms sale embargo against their easternmost ally.

Trump was sending Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien to Ankara to try to begin negotiations to stop the fighting. Pence said Trump spoke directly to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who promised not to attack the border town of Kobani, which in 2015 saw the Islamic State group’s first defeat in a battle by the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters.

Erdogan made clear, however, that he had no intention of halting the Turkish offensive. “They say ‘declare a ceasefire.’ We could never declare a ceasefire,” he told reporters. The U.N. Security Council planned a closed meeting Wednesday on the situation, requested by Germany and other EU members. “Everybody hopes that … we can do something to bring back the parties to the peace process,” said the current Security Council president, South Africa’s U.N. Ambassador Jerry Matjila.

NATO ambassadors also will meet on Wednesday in Brussels on Turkey’s offensive, said alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Erdogan defended Turkey’s offensive in a column in the Wall Street Journal, urging the international community to support Ankara’s effort to create what it calls a resettlement “safe zone” for refugees in northeastern Syria, or “begin admitting refugees.”

“Turkey reached its limit,” Erdogan wrote of the 3.6 million Syrians in his country. He said Turkey’s warnings it would be unable to stop refugee floods into the West without international support “fell on deaf ears.”

Turkey said it invaded northern Syria to create a zone of control the entire length of the border and drive out the Kurdish fighters, which it regards as terrorists because of their links to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.

Instead, after the Kurds’ deal with Damascus, a new de facto carving up of the border appeared to be taking shape. Turkish forces control the beginnings of a truncated zone roughly in the center of the border about 100 kilometers (60 miles) long between the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain.

Syrian government troops were moving into or increasing their presence in areas on either side of that enclave, including Manbij to the west and the cities of Qamishli and Hassakeh in the far northeastern corner of Syria.

Though they gain protection from the Turks by the deal with Damascus, the Kurds risk losing the virtual self-rule they have enjoyed across the northeast — the heartland of their minority community — ever since Assad pulled his troops from the area seven years ago to fight rebels elsewhere.

The U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator said at least 160,000 civilians in northeastern Syria have been displaced amid the Turkish operations.

Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed.

October 26, 2019

BEIRUT (AP) — In Hong Kong, it was a complicated extradition dispute involving a murder suspect. In Beirut, it was a proposed tax on the popular WhatsApp messenger service. In Chile, it was a 4-cent hike in subway fares.

Recent weeks have seen mass protests and clashes erupt in far-flung places triggered by seemingly minor actions that each came to be seen as the final straw. The demonstrations are fueled by local grievances, but reflect worldwide frustration at growing inequality, corrupt elites and broken promises.

Where past waves of protests, like the 2011 Arab Spring or the rallies that accelerated the breakup of the Soviet Union, took aim at dictatorships, the latest demonstrations are rattling elected governments. The unrest on three continents, coupled with the toxic dysfunction in Washington and London, raises fresh concerns over whether the liberal international order, with free elections and free markets, can still deliver on its promises.

THE PEOPLE STILL WANT THE FALL OF THE REGIME

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese poured into the streets after the government floated a new tax on WhatsApp on the heels of an austerity package that came in response to an increasingly severe fiscal crisis.

The protests rapidly escalated into an indictment of the entire post-civil war order , in which a sectarian power-sharing arrangement has transformed former warlords and other elites into a permanent political class. In the three decades since the war ended, the same leaders have used patronage networks to get themselves re-elected again and again even as the government has failed to reliably provide basic services like electricity, water and trash collection.

A similar story has unfolded in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, where a government that distributes power and top offices among Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds has calcified into a corrupt stasis, with parties haggling over ministries as services and infrastructure fall into further ruin despite the country’s considerable oil wealth.

“Thieves! Thieves!” protesters in both countries chanted this week.

“Massive economic mismanagement coupled with spiraling corruption have pauperized large segments of the Arab people,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “It is no wonder then that millions of Arabs are fed up.”

The protests in both countries target governments that are close to Iran and backed by its heavily armed local allies, raising fears of a violent backlash. Nearly 200 Iraqis have been killed in recent clashes with security forces, and supporters of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group have brawled with protesters in Beirut.

“There is no magical bullet or easy answer to the severe crisis of governance in Arab lands,” Gerges said. “The struggle will be fierce and long and costly, but there is no turning back.”

RISING UP AGAINST A RISING CHINA

Hong Kong’s protests erupted in early June after the semiautonomous city passed an extradition bill that put residents at risk of being sent to China’s judicial system. At one point, protesters said they had brought 2 million people into the streets.

Authorities were forced to drop the extradition proposal , which was triggered by the need to resolve the status of a murder suspect wanted for killing his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan. But by then, the movement had snowballed to include demands for full democracy in the form of direct elections for the city’s top leader.

Since China took control of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, the city’s leaders have been selected by an elite committee made up mostly of pro-Beijing tycoons. Local councillors and half of the Asian financial center’s legislature are directly elected, but the other half are chosen by representatives from the finance, tourism, catering, accounting and other industries, which adds to the public discontent over stifled promises of democracy.

Underlying the Hong Kong protest movement are rising fears about China’s tightening grip on the city and worries that Beijing is reneging on promises not to meddle with Hong Kong’s Western-style civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and an independent judiciary.

Protesters also fear China’s technology-powered authoritarianism. Wearing masks to conceal their identities, they have cut down “smart lampposts” and smashed surveillance cameras. They worry about artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition surveillance systems capturing their biometric data and sending it for processing by Chinese technology giants to track and identify them.

UNREST IN WEALTHY, DEMOCRATIC CHILE

On Friday, an estimated 1 million Chileans filled the streets of the capital Santiago, more than ever took to the streets during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet or the democratic governments that came after him.

The protests were sparked by the subway fare hike but soon morphed into a mass movement against inequality in one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries. At least 19 people have been killed as protesters have clashed with police in recent days.

Protesters tried to force their way onto the grounds of Chile’s legislature Friday, provoking an evacuation of the building. Police fired tear gas to fend off hundreds of demonstrators on the perimeter as some lawmakers and administrative staff hurried out of the legislative building, which is in the port city of Valparaiso.

Marta Lagos, head of Latinobarometro, a nonprofit survey group in Chile, said the protests have exposed the shortcomings of the country’s political system. “There is a failure of the system of political parties in its ability to represent society,” Lagos said.

Struggling to contain the strife, President Sebastián Piñera’s administration announced increases in the minimum wage, raised minimum pensions by 20% and rolled back the subway fare increase.

He put a 9.2% increase in electricity prices on hold until the end of next year, but with analysts predicting his resignation and fresh elections, the consequences of that move could fall to his successor.

CATALAN PROTESTS TAKE A VIOLENT TURN

For years, Catalan separatists have held peaceful, festive marches, but the movement took a violent turn last week when protests erupted over the imprisonment of nine leaders who led a bid for independence from Spain in 2017.

That failed attempt left the separatist movement rudderless, with 12 of its leaders arrested and most of the rest fleeing the country, including former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont.

New activist collectives have emerged in their place, including one calling itself the Tsunami Democratic, which uses its own app and encrypted messages to call for “civil disobedience.”

But one of its first calls to protest, after the Oct. 31 Supreme Court ruling jailing the leaders, turned into a massive siege of Barcelona’s international airport, with rioters clashing with police late into the night.

The group has borrowed some of its tactics and rhetoric from the Hong Kong protesters, and protesters in both places have staged demonstrations in support of one another, though most Hong Kong protesters have been careful not to push for independence from China — one of President Xi Jinping’s “red lines.”

That one movement is struggling against domination by one-party China while the other is rising up against a European democracy is a distinction that has been lost in the tear gas.

Associated Press writers Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed.

October 26, 2019

BAGHDAD (AP) — Tens of thousands of people, many of them young and unemployed men, thronged public squares and blocked main streets Friday in the capitals of Iraq and Lebanon in unprecedented, spontaneous anti-government revolts in two countries scarred by long conflicts.

Demonstrators in Iraq were beaten back by police firing live ammunition and tear gas, and officials said 30 people were killed in a fresh wave of unrest that has left 179 civilians dead this month. In Lebanon, scuffles between rival political groups broke out at a protest camp, threatening to undermine an otherwise united civil disobedience campaign now in its ninth day.

The protests are directed at a postwar political system and a class of elite leaders that have kept both countries from relapsing into civil war but achieved little else. The most common rallying cry from the protesters in Iraq and Lebanon is “Thieves! Thieves!” — a reference to officials they accuse of stealing their money and amassing wealth for decades.

The leaderless uprisings are unprecedented in uniting people against political leaders from their own religious communities. But the revolutionary change they are calling for would dismantle power-sharing governments that have largely contained sectarian animosities and force out leaders who are close to Iran and its heavily armed local allies.

Their grievances are not new. Three decades after the end of Lebanon’s civil war and 16 years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the streets of their capitals echo with the roar of private generators that keep the lights on. Tap water is undrinkable and trash goes uncollected. High unemployment forces the young to put off marriage and children.

Every few years there are elections, and every time it seems like the same people win. The sectarian power-sharing arrangement that ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war distributed power and high offices among Christians, Shiites and Sunnis. It has mostly kept the peace, but has turned former warlords into a permanent political class that trades favors for votes. A planned tax on WhatsApp amid a financial crisis was the last straw.

In Iraq, a similar arrangement among Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds has led to the same corrupt stasis, with parties haggling over ministries so they can give jobs and aid to supporters while lining their own pockets. The devastating war against the Islamic State group only exacerbated decades-old economic problems in the oil-rich country.

“They (leaders) have eaten away at the country like cancer,” said Abu Ali al-Majidi, 55, pointing toward the Green Zone, home to government offices and Western embassies. “They are all corrupt thieves,” he added, surrounded by his four sons who had come along for the protest.

In Iraq, a ferocious crackdown on protests that began Oct. 1 resulted in the deaths of 149 civilians in less than a week, most of them shot in the head and chest, along with eight security forces killed. After a three-week hiatus, the protests resumed Friday, with 30 people killed, according to the semi-official Iraq High Commission for Human Rights.

In both countries, which share a history of civil strife, the potential for sustained turmoil is real. Iraq and Lebanon are considered to be firmly in Iran’s orbit, and Tehran is loath to see protracted political turbulence that threatens the status quo, fearing it may lose influence at a time when it is under heavy pressure from the U.S.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah in Beirut and the Popular Mobilization Forces in Baghdad have said they want the governments in both countries to stay in power. The protests against Iraq’s Shiite-led government have spread to several, mainly Shiite-populated southern provinces. In Lebanon, demonstrations have erupted in Shiite communities, including in south Lebanon for the first time.

Signs of a backlash against Tehran’s tight grip on both countries can already be seen. Among the protesters’ chants in Baghdad, one said: “Iran out, out! Baghdad free, free!” Protesters trying to reach the heavily fortified Green Zone were met with tear gas and live ammunition. Men in black plainclothes and masks stood in front of Iraqi soldiers, facing off with protesters and firing the tear gas. Residents said they did not know who they were, with some speculating they were Iranians.

In the south, headquarters of Iran-backed militias were set on fire. In central Beirut, Hezbollah supporters clashed with anti-government protesters. Supporters of the powerful group rejected the protesters equating its leader with other corrupt politicians. A popular refrain in the rallies, now in their ninth day, has been: “All means all.”

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned in a televised speech that the protests — although largely peaceful until now — could lead to chaos and civil war. He said they were being hijacked by political rivals opposing the group.

“We are closing the roads, calling for toppling the system that has been ruling us for the past 30 years with oppression, suppression and terror, said Abed Doughan, a protester blocking a street in southern Beirut.

After Friday’s deadly violence in Iraq, a curfew was announced in several areas of the south. Hundreds of people were taken to hospitals, many with shortness of breath from the tear gas. The current round of protests has been endorsed by nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has a popular base of support and holds the largest number of seats in parliament. He has called on the government to resign and suspended his bloc’s participation in the government until it comes up with a reform program.

However, powerful Shiite militias backed by Iran have stood by the government and suggested the demonstrations were an outside “conspiracy.” Iraq’s most senior Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, appealed for protesters and security forces to avoid violence. In his Friday sermon, he also criticized the government-appointed committee investigating the crackdown in the previous protests, saying it did not achieve its goals or uncover who was behind the violence.

As in the protests earlier this month, the protesters, organized on social media, started from the central Tahrir Square. The demonstrators carried Iraqi flags and chanted anti-government slogans, demanding jobs and better public services like water and electricity.

“I want my country back, I want Iraq back,” said Ban Soumaydai, 50, an Education Ministry employee who wore black jeans, a white T-shirt and carried an Iraqi flag with the hashtag #We want a country printed on it.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has struggled to deal with the protests. In an address to the nation early Friday, he promised a government reshuffle next week and pledged reforms. He told protesters they have a right to peaceful demonstrations and called on security forces to protect the protesters.

Similarly, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri issued an emergency reform package few days after the protests began on Oct. 17 — a document that has been dismissed by protesters as “empty promises.”

Karam reported from Beirut and Krauss from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed.

September 17, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — They dug trenches around towns, reinforced caves for cover and put up sand bags around their positions. They issued calls to arms, urging young men to join in the defense of Idlib, the Syrian province where opposition fighters expect to make their last stand against Russian- and Iranian-backed government troops they have fought for years.

This time, it’s “surrender or die.” As the decisive stand for their last stronghold looms, this motley crew of tens of thousands of opposition fighters, including some of the world’s most radical groups, is looking for ways to salvage whatever is possible of an armed rebellion that at one point in the seven-year conflict controlled more than half of the country.

In its last chapter, just as it has throughout the long, bloody war, the Syrian rebellion’s fate lies in foreign hands. This time, the splintered and diverse rebels have only Turkey. “The whole world gave up on us, but Turkey will not,” said Capt. Najib al-Mustafa, spokesman for the Turkish-backed umbrella group known as the National Front for Liberation.

Idlib, with its 3 million residents and more than 60,000 fighters, is Turkey’s cross to bear. Ankara has appealed to Russia and Iran, its uneasy negotiating partners, for a diplomatic resolution to the ticking bomb. At the same time, it has sent reinforcements of its troops ringing Idlib, a move designed to ward off a ground assault, at least for now.

A wide offensive is only likely after a green light from Russia. But delicate diplomatic moves are at work. Moscow is keen on strengthening ties with Turkey, at a time when Ankara’s relations are at their lowest with the United States. Turkey, by calling on the United States and Europe for support, seems to be playing on that interest to pressure Russia to accept its proposals for a solution on Idlib that avoids an attack.

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets for the second time in 10 days with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, this time in Sochi, Russia. “After proving its influence in Syria and the Middle East, Russia wants to pull Turkey away from the West much more than achieve a military victory over the armed Syrian opposition,” Mustafa Ellabbad, an expert on Turkish-Arab relations, wrote in Kuwait’s al-Qabas newspaper.

The province, the size of Lebanon, has been the beating heart of the rebellion for years. In rebel hands since 2015, it is the largest contiguous territory they controlled. It has access to Turkish borders, securing supply lines for weapons, fighters and aid.

For the past two years, Idlib became the shoe-box into which were pushed an estimated 20,000 rebel fighters from around the country, after their losses to government troops and surrender deals negotiated with Russia and Damascus following devastating sieges. Civilians who refused to go back under government rule were also bussed there, nearly doubling the province’s population.

Among the estimated 60,000 opposition fighters in Idlib are at least 10,000 radicals affiliated with the al-Qaida-linked group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee). Thousands of foreign fighters, from China, Europe and the Middle East, are the backbone of the radical groups.

The Turkish reinforcements are going to 12 observation points that Ankara set up around Idlib last year under a deal with Russia and Iran creating a “de-escalation zone.” The deal also effectively stopped an earlier government advance and set Turkey up as Idlib’s protector.

Separately, Turkey has troops stationed in the enclave under its control north and east of Idlib, where it backs Syrian opposition fighters and a civilian administration. It is part of its plan to create a safe area along the border where some of the more than 3 million Syrian refugees it hosts may return.

Ankara initially sent in its troops more than two years ago to push out the Islamic State group and Syrian Kurdish fighters. For Ankara, the increasingly assertive, U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds were an existential threat that encourages the aspirations of its own Kurdish insurgents.

“In the mind of the rebellion, the hope is that from Turkish support they can have … a republic of northern Syria, protected by Turkey like Northern Cyprus,” said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria watcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

These Turkey-administered areas are likely to be the destination of the displaced and rebels of Idlib in case of an offensive. An Idlib offensive holds multiple threats for Turkey right on its border — a humanitarian crisis, a security nightmare with thousands of gunmen loose and a defeat to its plans for the safe zone. If Syrian forces retake Idlib with no agreement on the fate of the opposition fighters, they could threaten the Turkey-controlled enclave, and Ankara would lose credibility with the fighters and leverage with Damascus on any future deal.

“There is really no way for the Syrian military and Damascus’ allies to launch a military offensive on Idlib that doesn’t have deeply negative, injurious effects on Turkey. There is no real way they can cushion this for Turkey,” said Sam Heller, a Syria expert in the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Turkey’s strategy in the opposition areas has been complicated by the presence of radical fighters. By backing the National Front, it argued it can draw fighters away from the al-Qaida-linked HTS, the dominant power in the province, forcing it to dissolve and creating a new opposition force ready to negotiate with the Syrian government.

The strategy has had limited success. The National Front in recent months gained control of territory in Idlib from HTS, which still controls nearly 70 percent of the province. HTS began to show signs of splits and two weeks ago, Turkey declared it a terrorist group.

But with the onset of a military offensive, HTS has set up joint operation rooms with different National Front factions. Making a rare video appearance in late August, HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani — wearing an olive-green military uniform — vowed to fight Assad’s forces and said Turkish observation points were no protection.

The HTS spokesman in Idlib said now was not the time to talk about dissolving into Turkish-backed rebel groups. He underlined that an arrangement must eventually be made for the foreign fighters in the group.

“Right now, no sound is louder than that of the battle,” Imad Eddin Mujahed said. “We have many military surprises; enough to upset the balance and ward off aggressors.” In rallies around Idlib the last two weeks, protesters took to the streets to deny that the province is a hotbed of extremists. Thousands raised only the flag of the Syrian revolution, a reminder that there was once a popular uprising against Assad, and Idlib is now its last bastion.

Some raised banners reading: “The rebels are our hope and the Turks are our brothers.” Syrian forces and Iranian-backed militias are likely to avoid a clash with the Turkish troops. But the stance of the Syrian government and Iran is clear-cut: they vow to recapture all Syrian territory and are loath to see an expansion of Turkish and American influence. They argue the West fueled jihadis with past support of the opposition and now must let Syria get rid of them.

“Assad and Russia gave the choice to the international community: first we kill everybody. Second thing, (they said) if you want to protect (Idlib) then take those people you think are nice … It is cynical but puts the international community before its contradictions,” said Balanche.

Al-Mustafa, the National Front spokesman, said the rebels are prepared for a battle he called “existential.” But, he added, “our cause will not end if we lose this battle.”

September 14, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — In cities and towns across Syria’s last opposition-held province, Idlib, residents poured into the streets on Friday to demonstrate against President Bashar Assad’s government in defiance of an expected offensive to retake the territory.

In the provincial capital, Idlib city, and in towns including Kafranbel, Dana, Azaz, Maaret al-Numan and al-Bab, demonstrators filled the streets after noon prayers and chanted against Assad, raising the tri-color green, white and black flag that has become the banner of Syria’s 2011 uprising, activists said.

“The rebels are our hope; Turks are our brothers; the terrorists are Bashar, Hezbollah and Russia,” read a banner carried by residents in the village of Kneiset Bani Omar, referring to Turkey which backs the opposition, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Russia that have joined the war along with Assad’s forces.

“There will be no solution in Syria without Assad’s fall,” read another banner carried in the northern village of Mhambel. The demonstrations were reported on the activist-run sites Aleppo Media Center, Orient News, and other social media pages.

Fridays have become the customary day for protests throughout the Arab world since the 2011 uprisings that swept through the region. Assad’s government and its backers, Russia and Iran, say Idlib is ruled by terrorists, and have threatened to seize it by force.

Wissam Zarqa, a university teacher in Idlib, said demonstrators were flying the tri-color flag to rebut the government line that Idlib is dominated by the al-Qaida linked Levant Liberation Committee group.

The province, population 3 million, is now the final shelter for close to 1.5 million displaced Syrians that fled fighting in other parts of Syria. Many say they will not return to government-ruled areas.

Government and Russian forces bombed towns and villages in the province earlier this week, killing more than a dozen civilians and damaging two hospitals. But the strikes eased on Wednesday amid talks between the opposition’s main regional sponsor Turkey, and Russia and Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are slated to meet Monday, said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “We will continue our efforts with Iran and with Russia. … (and) on international platforms as well,” said Cavusoglu in comments carried live on Turkish television.

Turkish media said the two leaders would meet in the Russian city of Sochi. Turkey has warned strongly against military action, saying it would trigger a humanitarian catastrophe. Its military and defense chiefs visited border areas on Friday to inspect troop reinforcements sent to its Hatay and Gaziantep provinces.

Turkey has 12 military posts inside Idlib province, and activists reported on Thursday that Turkish reinforcements crossed over into Syria to fortify the installations. The United Nations said that in the first 12 days of September, over 30,000 people have been internally displaced by an intense aerial bombing campaign. Most of the displaced headed toward the border with Turkey, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, packing already overcrowded camps there.

The U.N.’s World Food Program said it, alongside partners, were already delivering monthly food rations for nearly 600,000 people. It said it was prepared to deliver emergency food assistance for up to 1 million people.

Save The Children said in a statement that it will continue to support extensive humanitarian programs through Syrian partner organizations in the country’s northwest. It added that this includes running primary healthcare clinics and a maternity hospital, vaccination and food security programs, supporting a network of schools and carrying out child protection work.

“One million children are trapped in Idlib facing what could be the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in the long and bloody history of Syria’s seven-year war,” said Syria Response Advocacy Manager Caroline Anning.

Also Friday, The Elders, an international non-governmental organization of public figures, called on Russia, Turkey and Iran to work “hand-in-hand to prevent heavy civilian casualties in Syria’s Idlib region.”

September 08, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government and Russian warplanes on Saturday targeted the southern edge of Idlib province in what activists described as the most intense airstrikes in weeks, ratcheting up military pressure on the densely populated rebel-held bastion.

More than 60 air raids killed at least four civilians in southern Idlib, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and rescue workers. The bombings also included indiscriminate barrel bombs, dropped from choppers, invariably blamed on the government.

The bombings, including shelling from government areas, came a day after Iran and Russia backed a military campaign in the rebel-held area despite Turkey’s pleas for a cease-fire. Turkey has troops and 12 observations points that circle Idlib.

State-run Al-Ikhbariya TV said the government was retaliating against overnight shelling from rebel-held areas on a government-held town in Hama province, south of Idlib. The shelling late Friday in Mhradah killed nine civilians, according to state media. The state news agency SANA said government forces have shelled “terrorist” posts in northern Hama.

But the government and Russian raids targeted a wide swath of rebel-held area in the southern edge of the rebel-held enclave that includes most of Idlib province and northern Hama province. More than 3 million people live in the area, nearly half of them already displaced from fighting elsewhere in Syria.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 68 air raids and 19 barrel bombs dropped Saturday on several of towns and villages in southwestern Idlib and Hama province. The area targeted over the past few days overlooks government-controlled areas.

The Observatory described the attacks on the rebel-held areas as the “most intense” since August and said they killed four in Abdeen, west of Khan Sheikhoun town, including two children and a woman. The raids forced schools to close in Khan Sheikhoun, a town under attack, according to the Observatory.

The White Helmets, a team of first responders, also reported on the four people killed in Abdeen. A video posted by the White Helmets from the town shows their rescuers pulling a woman who was still alive from under the rubble of a caked building, as other team members warn of government helicopters hovering above them.

The rescuers said another was killed in Halba, a village farther north. The group said one of its already damaged centers had been hit in the wave of airstrikes. In another village in central Idlib, Hass, an area hospital was hit by the airstrikes, putting it out of service and injuring two of its staff members, according to Coordinators of Response, a group of volunteers operating in northern Syria. The group also said the airstrikes caused a limited amount of internal displacement, uprooting nearly 700 families from their homes in several parts of Idlib.

The local council of Morek, a town that serves as a crossing between Hama and Idlib, sent an urgent appeal, asking Turkey to intervene. “We need a quick solution or our town will burn!” the official pleaded in an audio recording shared on social media platforms.

Separately, clashes broke out in eastern Syria in Qamishli, a town close to the border with Turkey, between government and Kurdish security members. The Observatory said the clashes left 10 government security personnel and seven Kurdish fighters dead.

The town is run by Kurdish-led administrators and forces, but Syrian government troops hold pockets of territory there, including the airport. Occasional clashes erupt there over turf control and authority, reflecting deepening political tension between the uneasy partners.

Kurdish security forces, known as Asayish, said in a statement that a government patrol entered the areas controlled by the Kurdish militia in Qamishli and began arresting civilians, then shot at a Kurdish checkpoint sparking the gun battle. The Asayish said seven of its members and 11 government personnel were killed.

A journalist and area resident, Arin Sheikmos, said the government security troops carried out an arrest campaign in Kurdish-controlled areas, detaining people it accused of dodging military conscription. This prompted the clashes that lasted no more than 20 minutes, Sheikmos said.

There was no immediate comment on the clashes by the government. The U.S.-backed Kurdish administration has recently begun talking with the Syrian government, seeking government recognition of its self-rule areas. But in recent days, the Damascus government announced that it will be holding local administration elections, including in Kurdish-ruled areas, undermining the negotiations with the Kurds and their proposal for self-rule.

The Kurdish-led administration control nearly 30 percent of Syria, mostly in the northeastern part of the country, including some of Syria’s largest oil fields. They seized the territories, with the backing of the U.S.-led coalition, after driving out Islamic State militants.

August 04, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — For nearly three years, green buses have filed into Syria’s Idlib province, bringing those evacuated from other opposition enclaves that fell to government forces — thousands of defeated rebel fighters, wanted activists and civilians who refused to go back under President Bashar Assad’s rule.

They now face what is likely to be the last showdown between Assad’s forces and the opposition. Assad has vowed to retake the province, and pro-government media promise the “mother of all battles.” If it comes to an all-out assault, it could bring a humanitarian crisis. Filled with displaced from elsewhere, the province in Syria’s northwest corner is packed with some 3 million people, the most deeply irreconcilable with Assad’s government and including some of the world’s most radical militants. They have little option but to make a stand, with few good places to escape.

“Currently, all (opposition) from around Syria came to Idlib. The only solution is to fight. There is no alternative,” said Firas Barakat, an Idlib resident. The 28-year old said that for years he has dedicated himself to civilian opposition activities, but now he must take up arms.

The opposition capture of Idlib in 2015 signaled the low point for Assad’s government during the course of war that is now nearly 8 years old — a time when rebels controlled large parts of two main Syrian cities, major highways, border crossings, dams and oil resources.

Russian and Iranian backing enabled Assad’s military to claw back territory. Most recently, it scored a victory with heavy symbolic resonance in the south, recapturing Daraa, one of the first places to rise against Assad’s rule in 2011.

Around a third of the country still remains out of government hands in the north and east, most of it held by U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces that wrested it from the Islamic State group. But Idlib stands as the last significant enclave of the armed opposition that rose up dedicated to ousting Assad.

“When we saw the resistance collapse in the south— and we thought it never would give it was the first to resist the government — fear really prevailed here,” said Barakat. Squeezed, the opposition is desperate. But its forces are not small, and their territory is not tiny and sealed off as other opposition holdouts were. That portends a complex and difficult battle.

The number of fighters in Idlib is estimated at several tens of thousands, including thousands of battle-hardened militants from al-Qaida-linked groups and from China’s Turkic-speaking Uighur minority.

Although the al-Qaida-linked group dominates, other non-jihadi factions have maintained their presence, including some of the earliest forces to take up arms against Assad. With Turkey’s backing, they have formed a “National Liberation Front,” excluding al-Qaida.

Idlib has seen a wave of lawlessness and assassinations among the various factions, including shootings and car bombs. Saeed al-Nakrash, a rebel leader originally from near Damascus, was kidnapped and held for 50 days. He blamed al-Qaida-linked militants and said his family paid $75,000 for his release.

The opposition-held area abuts the Turkish border on the north and west. Though Turkey has built a wall, the border remains porous, providing a supply line for fighters. That wall could be overwhelmed if massive numbers try to flee Idlib.

To the east is an enclave held by Turkish-backed Syrian fighters, a possible escape route for anyone fleeing, though it is already overwhelmed by displaced. Rumblings have started. Activists report government reinforcements arriving at Abu Dhuhur air base in eastern Idlib, which Assad’s forces seized early this year. Troops have been shelling Jisr el-Shughur, a strategic opposition-held town overlooking the government stronghold on the Mediterranean coast.

Just how ferocious an offensive turns out to be depends on diplomatic maneuvering among the power players — particularly Russia. It appears reluctant for an all-out assault. Russia is juggling between longtime ally Syria and its new friend Turkey, which has become central to the political process Moscow is leading to try to resolve the conflict.

Assad vows to restore all of Syria to its control. Turkey fears an assault will send a flood of refugees — and militants — swarming to its border. Under a deal with Russia and Iran, Turkey has deployed around 1,000 troops at 12 observation points around Idlib to monitor a cease-fire, effectively standing between government forces and the opposition. It is part of a “de-escalation” zone in the province that ultimately aims to root out al-Qaida-linked groups as a basis for a future political process.

Turkey warns that a wide-scale offensive will wreck Russia’s efforts. Its deployment in Idlib is a “trip wire that will start to tug at the (agreements with Russia) if you try to walk through it,” said Aron Lund, a Syria expert with the Century Foundation.

From the other side, the Syrian government is testing the Russia-Turkey relationship. During the latest meeting in Russia in July, Syria’s U.N. ambassador Bashar Jaafari blasted Turkey, saying it has failed to weed out extremists from Idlib.

Jaafari said Damascus encourages reconciliation with rebels, but not with al-Qaida militants — adding that it is Turkey’s responsibility “fight terrorism.” “If Idlib returns in reconciliation, this is well and good. And if it doesn’t …the Syrian army has the right to restore control over Idlib by force.”

That makes Russia’s stance critical, said Sam Heller, a researcher with the International Crisis Group. “Ultimately what determines the survival of Idlib may be external, and they relate to these geopolitical considerations,” he said.

Russia has already said no wide offensive is expected. That has raised speculation over a limited operation to control Jisr al-Shughur or the main highway running through Idlib. Wael Olwan — a spokesman for one of the strongest Turkish-backed Syrian factions, Faylaq al-Sham — said Turkey working with Syrian allies can “dissolve” the al-Qaida-linked factions.

But, he said, “I am not optimistic that Russia can hold back the regime forces long enough for Turkey to dismantle the radical groups.”

July 18, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — Talks to cede the largest opposition holdout in southwestern Syria to the government have failed, triggering an intense overnight bombing campaign on the densely populated town that killed a dozen people and injured over a hundred, activists and rescuers said Wednesday.

Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an overnight ‘frenzied’ bombing campaign continued into Wednesday, with at least 350 missiles lobbed into Nawa and its surrounding areas. The Observatory said at least 12 were killed as rescuers struggled to get to the casualties.

Khaled Solh, head of the local Syrian civil defense known as White Helmets, said only one ambulance was able to access the town and civilians relied on their cars to bring out at least 150 injured. He said the only hospital in the town was struck in the overnight campaign, rendering it non-operational. He said one of the last orthopedists in the town was killed in the strikes.

In less than a month, Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power have been able to seize control of most of Daraa province, including the eponymous provincial capital that was the cradle of the uprising against President Bashar Assad more than seven years ago.

They have stepped up their military offensive on the remaining opposition pockets in the southwestern region that includes Daraa and Quneitra provinces that straddle the border with Jordan and the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Alongside the military offensive, the government has resorted to “reconciliation” agreements whereby it negotiated capitulation deals in a number of villages to restore government control in the localities that have been in rebel hands for years.

Talks to hand over Nawa, one of the most densely populated towns in Daraa province, have been ongoing for a couple of days. This has encouraged displaced civilians to return in droves to Nawa, said a local activist who goes by the name Selma Mohammed. But the talks faltered, triggering the overnight onslaught.

Mohammed said the bombing triggered a new wave of displacement, with hundreds leaving the town again. On Wednesday, the bombing focused on towns and villages surrounding Nawa, making the road in and out of town deadly, Mohammed said.

The Observatory said warplanes and ground forces have also targeted with a barrage of missiles the southern tip of the region, which is held by a militant group affiliated with the Islamic State group.

With most of Daraa under control, government forces have turned their focus to the area near the frontier with Israel, to clear the last pockets of the opposition. The offensive has displaced more than 230,000 people, many of them on the run in the open from the onslaught. Jordan said it will not take in new refugees and Israeli soldiers have shooed away dozens of protesters demanding protection who approached the frontier Tuesday.

Saturday 14/07/2018

DAMASCUS – Syrian rebels in the southern city of Deraa were surrendering their heavy weapons to government forces on Saturday, state media said, under a deal brokered by regime ally Russia.

State news agency SANA said opposition fighters in the neighborhood of Deraa al-Balad, a district in the city’s rebel-held southern half, handed over heavy ammunition and other equipment.

It came a day after the regime and rebels began dismantling the dirt barriers that had divided the city for years.

The agreement reached on Wednesday will see Deraa city — the cradle of Syria’s seven-year uprising — fall back into government control.

Negotiated by Moscow, it provides for rebels to hand over heavy- and medium-duty weapons and to “reconcile” legally with the government, according to state media.

Those who rejected the deal would be allowed safe passage out of the city.

The terms mirror a broader deal announced on July 6 for the entire province of Deraa, which would be implemented in three stages: the eastern countryside first, then the city, and finally the province’s west.

While rebels have handed over weapons to government forces in dozens of towns, no transfers of fighters or civilians to the opposition-held north have taken place yet.

The Deraa deals are the latest in a string of so-called “reconciliation” agreements that typically follow blistering military offensives.

After using the strategy to secure Damascus and other strategic parts of Syria since 2015, President Bashar al-Assad turned his attention to the south.

Beginning on June 19, Syrian and Russian bombardment pounded rebel areas in Deraa and the neighboring province of Quneitra, ostensibly protected by an internationally agreed ceasefire.

The onslaught came to an end with the July 6 ceasefire.

Regime forces now hold more than 80 percent of Deraa province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor that relies on a network of sources inside the country.

Some western areas of the province remain under opposition control, and the deal excludes a southwestern patch held by an affiliate of the Islamic State jihadist group.

Syria’s conflict has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://www.middle-east-online.com/en/syria-rebels-surrender-heavy-arms-deraa-city.

Friday 13/07/2018

BEIRUT – The rapid fall of Deraa city, the cradle of Syria’s uprising, is an important victory for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but the country’s devastating war is far from over, analysts say.

Russian-backed government forces raised the flag in Deraa city on Thursday, but the regime still has two regions outside its control — and influential neighbors — to contend with.

To the west, it will have to retake the Quneitra province bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, before moving on to a major battle in the north near the border with Turkey.

“Bashar al-Assad sent a signal with the fall of Deraa city that nowhere in Syria that has risen up against him will remain outside his reach,” said Nick Heras, an analyst at the Center for a New American Strategy.

It was in poverty-stricken Deraa that anti-Assad protests erupted in 2011, sparking an uprising that spiraled into a complex civil war.

Seven years into the conflict, Assad’s forces have sealed a deal for a handover of the city and are determined to retake the whole of the wider province of the same name on the border with Jordan.

More than 80 percent of Deraa province has returned to regime control, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor says, but rebels are resisting in its western countryside.

‘Special challenge’

“All of these images from Deraa of Assad’s flag flying are meant to hasten the process of negotiating deals” for these rebel holdouts, Heras said.

It is also intended to help the Assad regime retake the whole of southwest Syria, including Quneitra.

“The hope in Damascus is that the fall of Deraa will move the Israelis to a deal now to let Assad reconsolidate his rule in southwest Syria,” he said.

But, says Sam Heller of the International Crisis Group think-tank, Quneitra will “represent a special military and political challenge”.

The ICG said in a recent report that Israel had supported fighters in southern Syria since 2013 or 2014, apparently to “secure a buffer zone on its border”.

This week, Israel said it had carried out missile strikes on Syrian military posts in Quneitra, after intercepting what it said was an unarmed drone that had strayed into its territory.

Syria geographer Fabrice Balanche said Damascus securing Quneitra and the adjacent demilitarized zone would be “difficult because a deal is needed with the Israelis”.

“They are scared that the Syrian army will enter and then never leave,” he said, adding the missiles strikes overnight to Thursday were likely a “warning”.

Israel is particularly nervous over the presence of Iranians next door in Syria, where they have been backing Assad’s regime.

In recent months, a series of strikes in Syria that have killed Iranians have been attributed to Israel.

‘Mother of all battles’

The regime has retaken large parts of Syria with backing from its Russian ally since 2015, but few campaigns have been as quick as the one in Deraa.

A ceasefire was announced last week between opposition fighters and the regime, less than three weeks after the start of a deadly bombing campaign.

Still “it would be a mistake for the regime to let it go to its head and think that it had definitively won the war,” said Karim Bitar of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Affairs.

“This war in Syria is no longer exclusively Syrian, but involves many international actors who consider they have not had their last word yet.”

These include not only Israel, but also foreign actors with interests in northern Syria, where analysts say Assad’s regime is likely to set its sights next.

Turkey-backed rebels hold land in the north, while US-supported Kurdish fighters are present in the northeast.

The northwestern province of Idlib, on the border with Turkey, is largely controlled by an alliance of jihadists and rebels led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

“Idlib, next up on Assad’s list, promises to be far harder fighting for his forces, a mother of all battles,” Heras said.

Turkey has taken in more than three million Syrian refugees displaced by the civil war, and is eager not to take in any more.

“Turkey has also indicated that for them they consider Idlib a red line,” Heller said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://www.middle-east-online.com/en/assad-enters-revolutions-cradle-syrian-war-far-over.